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The view from the bench: From terrible to touching, retiring judge reflects on years spent in court

For 25 years, Superior Court Judge Marlene Hyatt has often worked as much as 12 hours a day, five days a week presiding over some of the toughest legal cases in North Carolina. Her job has taken her to every corner of the state to rule over serious crimes, including murder, trafficking, armed robbery, burglary, sex offenses and more.

Hyatt has seen it all — ranging from the woman who chopped her husband up and scattered his remains along the Blue Ridge Parkway to a state trooper killed by a semi-truck on I-40 to a battle to save an old magnolia tree from a developer’s ax.

Though her line of work may have exposed her to some of mankind’s most horrible and heart wrenching acts, she still doesn’t think the world is a bad place. Rather, she maintains a more matter-of-fact view.

“You see the good and the bad, and humankind is what it is,” she said.

Now, at age 55, Hyatt is finally stepping off the bench. She wants more free time to do things her demanding schedule hasn’t allowed, like garden. As her judicial career draws to a close, Hyatt sat down with the Smoky Mountain News to reflect on what she’s learned.

“It’s been a really interesting job,” she says.

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Her most challenging cases

Hyatt has several, but the first that came to her mind was the 2005 civil trial centering around a landslide that killed a woman in Maggie Valley. The trial pitted the woman’s husband and widower against both the Department of Transportation and the Maggie Valley Sanitary District. Determining just who was at fault in the woman’s death was complex, and the trial resulted in a hung jury. The matter was later settled out of court. “It was very sad,” Hyatt remembers.

In general, Hyatt says medical malpractice cases are some of the hardest to try, and almost always depressing.

“It may or may not be the doctor’s fault, but regardless, there’s a serious injury. Things have happened that were heart wrenching,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, Hyatt says cases resulting in the death penalty are also tough. She hasn’t had any such cases recently, but there have been several in the course of her career.

“There are people that are on death row and some who have been executed whose trial I presided over,” she says. “I think there are some cases where it’s necessary.”

Hyatt prefers civil cases over criminal ones, which she says are more interesting.

“In criminal court, they’re tried with certain offenses, and if they’re found guilty, there’s a sentencing structure. In civil court, it’s usually not as well-defined,” she says. “There are more issues to work out, and it’s more interesting legally.”


Her longest trial

Hyatt’s lengthiest trial lasted six weeks, and is a great example of how broad the scope of her work is. The case, tried in Charlotte, pitted two brothers against one another in a battle over an irrigation company. Their father had started the company, brought his sons in, and then died, leaving them to fight over whose it rightfully was. In many of Hyatt’s trials, such as this one, she walks away with an expanded knowledge of a very specific and random subject.

“I learned a great deal about irrigation equipment,” she says with a chuckle.

Six weeks may not seem that long, compared to, say, the O.J. Simpson trial, which lasted nine months. But Hyatt says lengthy trials like that “wouldn’t happen in North Carolina.” Once a trial begins in this state, its conducted all day long, every day, until a verdict is reached. In contrast, the Simpson trial was recessed for several days at a time and often lasted only a few hours each day.

Keeping emotions out of the courtroom.

No matter how horrible a case is, Hyatt hasn’t let her emotions get in the way of a verdict. It’s the absolute hardest part of the job, she says, and the most critical.

“That’s one of the things you have to learn early on to really do, because you aren’t able to do your job if you let your emotions interfere,” she says. “Regardless of how it may be — whether you feel sorry for somebody, or some who are arrogant and not the kind of people you feel sympathy for, you learn to (keep emotions out). It makes your job very hard if you’re unable to do that.”

Maintaining a neutral stance is how Hyatt is able to move on to her next case, no matter how hard the previous one may have been.

“You give that case the attention it deserves, and that’s the one for that period of time. You do what you need to do, get it to a verdict, sentence if you need to, enter judgment, and go on to the next week,” she says.


The only case that brought Hyatt to tears

Even today, Hyatt still chokes up when talking about the sole trial in 25 years that made her cry on the bench. It was a case in Transylvania County where a mother killed her infant son. The mother was diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis. The facts of the case are heart wrenching — the woman’s family knew she suffered from mental illness, and monitored her and the infant around the clock. One day, for whatever reason, the family left the woman alone with the child for a brief period. It may have only been a few minutes, but when they came back, the child was dead.

Watching a tape where the woman methodically explained to state investigators the motive for killing her son shook Hyatt to the core, and was the sole time the judge cracked in court.

“I had never cried in a hearing,” she says.

The woman was found mentally unfit to stand trial and sent to a state psychiatric hospital.


Trends and changes in criminal activity

Overall, the biggest change Hyatt has seen in crime over her career is that there’s more of it — as the state’s population has increased, so have the number of criminal and civil cases.

In terms of the types of crimes circulating through the judicial system, Hyatt says sex offenses have accounted for the largest increase. There are a couple of reasons behind the trend — more people tend to report sex offenses than did in the past, and many more women are willing to come forward.

“At one point in time, women would not talk about it. That’s changed, though I think there’s still some reluctance,” Hyatt says.

The punishments for sex offenders have also changed — now there’s a registry to keep track of them, as well as GPS monitoring.

“We have to determine how long to monitor and which kinds of cases to register, and all of that has become much more complicated,” says Hyatt.

Drugs, namely what types, are another big change Hyatt has witnessed during her years on the bench. When she first started, it was cocaine or marijuana. Then it was crack cocaine and certain prescription drugs. More recently, methamphetamines, some ecstasy and designer drugs have become the most common substances.

“Which is the drug of choice changes. Particularly in Western North Carolina, there’s been more of a shift to meth and designer drugs,” Hyatt says. She thinks that’s because meth is easy for people to make themselves, rather than buying it from some faraway source.


The state of the court system

Hyatt is well-versed in the ins and outs of the state’s court system, and knows what’s working as well as what needs work.

NC has kept frivolous lawsuits at bay

On the positive side, the judicial system in NC hasn’t seen an increase in the number of frivolous lawsuits filed, a problem that has plagued much of the rest of the country. The state has rules in place that make it hard for someone to file a civil suit at the drop of a hat. For example, when someone accuses a physician of medical malpractice, the accuser (or plaintiff in legal speak) must first locate a specialist in the same field that can swear under oath that the accused physician wasn’t providing the expected standard of care. That’s cut way down on the number of medical malpractice suits filed, says Hyatt.


The limits of structured sentencing

The state of North Carolina has a system of structured sentencing in felony cases, which means the judge is required to hand down a certain sentence based on the offence, the number of prior convictions and other factors.

The aim of structured sentencing was to make punishments fair and equal across the state — a person convicted of a crime in Murphy would receive the same punishment in Manteo. Hyatt agrees with the goals of this type of system, but nonetheless, says it can be limiting.

“There are cases in which I would like to have more discretion, and I don’t have that discretion under structured sentencing,” she says. For example, in some cases, Hyatt would like to give the convicted person jail time, but can only mandate probation. Conversely, some who she would like to provide with a lighter sentence are required by law to go to jail.


A lack of resources

Hyatt says funding for the judicial system has decreased in the last few years, making it hard for the system to run efficiently. Too few staff have less than they need to perform an increased number of tasks.

“We’re expected to do more and more with less and less,” Hyatt says.

The problem, she says, is a lack of both “physical and fiscal,” resources. Clerk of court offices and courtrooms are insufficiently staffed, while at the same time, more things like GPS monitoring and registration requirements are being put in place that amount to more paperwork.

Counties across the state also lack adequate physical facilities, such as courtrooms and jury assembly rooms. The lack of space limits the number of cases that can be processed at one time and bottlenecks the system.

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